Don't count Europe out for next pope: Italian cardinal

Cardinals choosing the next pope should not count out European candidates even though most believers are in Asia, Africa and Latin America, an Italian cardinal elector said today.

"The conclave will vote on the basis of the person, not where they come from. Despite the crisis of faith, Europe still has a lot to give to the Church," Cardinal Velasio De Paolis said in an interview with La Stampa daily.

"We have to choose someone who can best guide the Church and serve the cause of the faith, not whoever has best conquered the mass media or has the most captivating external image," said De Paolis, one of the cardinals who can vote on a new pope.

Pope Benedict's decision to step down on February 28 has kicked off a race for the Vatican's top job, and the conclave of cardinals which will gather in secret to select his successor is set to meet just days after his resignation.

Benedict's rule has been criticised as overly "eurocentric" in some quarters and Vatican watchers say greater voice could now be given to other continents.

Of the 117 cardinals who will meet in the Sistine Chapel to vote, 62 are European -- 28 of whom are Italian -- while 19 come from South America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa and 11 from Asia and one from Oceania.

"It is true that in 2,000 years there has never been a non-European pope and the majority of Catholics today live in the rest of the world, but a European would not guarantee less universality than a South African or Asian," he said.

"The decision will be based on a person's value and not geographical weight. Europe conserves its Christian roots, its contribution is fundamental," he added, adding that "the Church is not subject to statistics."

"In the conclave, the wind of the Holy Spirit blows where it wants and does not listen to the leanings of public opinion," he said.

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